Virtual Sage on a Virtual Stage
As the pandemic made clear, remote learning is likely to be an essential component of education for the foreseeable future. But what’s the best way to deliver a natural, engaging program online? Two schools have experimented with one creative format: holography. Their individual approaches show just how much potential this technology has for education.
Not-Quite-Live From London
In 2018, Imperial College Business School in London held a Women in Tech event where prominent women in the industry shared their experiences. What made the conference so unusual was that some speakers appeared onstage in person—and others were beamed in from New York using holographic technology. All participants were able to interact equally with the audience and the other panelists, even though some of them were an ocean apart.
It was the first time Imperial College Business School had delivered an event using holograms, but it had been considering the technology for a while. From the school’s perspective, the technology offered a number of potential advantages: It would allow Imperial to reduce its carbon footprint, build its reputation as a technology leader, and bring in experts and influencers who might be unwilling to travel for in-campus events.
However, until recently, the technology was too expensive to install—about 150,000 GBP (about 209,000 USD), estimates Sarah Grant, associate director and head of operations for Imperial’s Edtech Lab. Then, Toronto-based ARHT Media created a simpler and more affordable version that could project lifelike digital human holograms in real-time from studios around the world, and the business school signed on.
Since 2018, the school has used holograms for a number of high-profile events. One was an international conference on sustainable finance, which featured experts who joined from Canada. Another was a panel discussion on “Reimagining the Future of EdTech” at the 2019 EdtechX Europe summit. Grant appeared on the stage as a holographic image to introduce and moderate a panel where one speaker was present in person and another one was beamed in from a remote studio.
Grant says, “I was surprised by how easy it was to view and interact with the audience as if physically present. I was able to respond to individual questions and engage with other panel members seamlessly. It was a truly immersive experience.”
In addition to using holograms for such events, the school has experimented with creating prerecorded holographic lectures that can be delivered multiple times. So far, student response to the holographic applications have been positive. For instance, students like the fact that hologram speakers can interact more naturally with audiences, making eye contact as they ask and answer questions.
“Holographic technology offered convincing and realistic 3D life-size speakers on stage, which is amazing,” says one student. “I was definitely more engaged than I was listening to prerecorded video lectures.”
Ghostly Presence at the Podium
Holography first came to the University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business in the summer of 2020, when school administrators realized that the pandemic wasn’t going to end any time soon. They began searching for ways to deliver hybrid classes that allowed professors to teach remotely and that gave students the option of learning at home or on campus.
The school contracted with Contextual Content Group, an Austin startup that had been using holographic technology in a variety of applications, to deliver its first holographic course. Steve Limberg, a professor in the accounting department, piloted the new technology with his executive MBA accounting course.
To students in the classroom, the professor appeared as a somewhat ghostly but otherwise “real” presence, teaching from the stage.
Limberg was able to see and engage with students whether they were in class or at home. To students in the classroom, he appeared as a somewhat ghostly but otherwise “real” presence, teaching from the stage. To remote students, he appeared on their screens as a full-body image, speaking and gesturing as a live instructor would.
While watching the holographic professor, “students at home indicated they suffered from Zoom fatigue to a lesser degree,” says Joseph G. Stephens, senior assistant dean and director of the working professional and executive MBA programs at the McCombs School. “In the classroom, we found that students sort of ‘forgot’ the professor was a holographic figure after a few sessions. However, it did not match the true in-person experience exactly. Lighting and brightness did factor into the equation on this from a technical standpoint.”
After McCombs piloted the technology with Limberg, the school used the holographic format to deliver three additional courses across satellite campuses in Dallas and Houston. “We left it to other professors to decide if they wanted to use the technology after they had watched a demo and saw some responses from our original pilot group of students,” says Stephens. “Ultimately, three additional faculty chose to use it.”
The Grand Illusion
So what does it take for a school to deliver a holographic experience? The first requirement is an understanding of and investment in the relevant technology. On one end is a capture studio where the speaker is located. It’s outfitted with cameras, lights, audio equipment, set dressing, and “reference monitors” that include a live feed of the audience to enable the speaker to make eye contact.
On the other end, where the audience sits, there is a display studio that includes a semi-transparent screen and a projector. The studios are connected via high-performance laptops running customized streaming software that sends video and audio data back and forth, allowing seamless interaction between speaker and audience. High-speed internet is essential on both sides.
As in any other remote class, the instructor can share a screen with students—but from a holographic studio, the professor also can write on a whiteboard, and the cameras transmit the images to those in the audience. “The studio camera picks up anything we put in front of it except for the color green. That includes green clothing,” explains Stephens.
“The overall effect relies heavily on illusion,” says Grant. “It’s the black backdrop, the tilt of the camera, and some clever lighting techniques that really help bring a three-dimensional quality to the projected image. It’s remarkable how quickly audiences forget that the person talking is not physically present in the room. This obviously has huge advantages in terms of beaming in high-profile speakers from remote locations and having them appear lifelike in the lecture theatre.”
While the results are almost magical, the hologram technology itself is fairly straightforward, according to Jim Spencer, founder and CEO of Contextual Content Group. “The professor needs a microphone and the classroom requires a speaker system,” he says. “They need to be carefully synchronized to help deliver the live image of the professor. But most classrooms already have monitors or projectors that can enhance the presentation.”
Many campuses also have production studios that include green screens and video capabilities, says Spencer. Therefore, schools that want to adopt the technology would incur most of their additional expenses by creating the classroom stage and projection abilities. Costs would range from about 5,000 USD to 15,000 USD, Spencer estimates, “depending on whether a powerful projector can be repurposed.”
Many campuses have production studios that include green screens and video capabilities, so schools would incur most of their additional expenses by creating the classroom stage and projection abilities.
So far, both McCombs and Imperial have enlisted the help of professional technicians to deliver their holographic events. For instance, as Limberg taught accounting classes at McCombs, he was aided in the studio by a producer who controlled the cameras. “The producer was extremely helpful—allowing the professor to concentrate on teaching and engaging the class versus messing with any technology complexities,” says Stephens. The producer also saved the professor from having to do any emergency troubleshooting during the class.
Imperial relies on a qualified media team to operate the equipment at both ends of the system, says Grant. “The quality of the projection is heavily dependent on those orchestrating the event, and it’s not quite as simple to set up as you might see in the movies,” she says. “However, looking ahead, I do expect the technology to miniaturize so that it becomes a more commonplace method of communication—think ‘hologram in a box.’”
Schools that are considering investing in holographic technology should first pose a few key questions to potential providers, Stephens recommends. For instance, although McCombs faculty adapted quickly, he thinks it’s important that schools ask providers about faculty training. “I would also ask about space needed for the studio and the classroom. We learned that the staging setup and takedown were a lot more labor-intensive and took up more room than we’d prepared ourselves for. As technology improves, I think it could become more turnkey—but the current technology didn’t allow for that.”
Adds Grant, “Before investing in the technology, a school should have a clear understanding of the ‘why’ and the ‘how,’ while also ensuring all of the relevant stakeholders are on board. There’s no point investing in equipment that’s going to sit abandoned in a cupboard because nobody knows how or wants to use it.”
‘Reimagining What Is Possible’
Administrators at both schools envision impressive future applications for holographic technology, such as bringing multiple teachers from multiple locations into one classroom or beaming one professor from one studio to many different classrooms.
“Imagine a case where a professor teaches simultaneously in classrooms in London, Hong Kong, and New York using holographic technology,” says Grant. “I feel we are still only at the very beginning of reimagining what is possible.”
In fact, in Grant’s long-term vision, many universities will adopt holographic technology so they can all broadcast programs to each other. She says, “I can see real opportunities for inviting global leaders and influencers of industry into our classrooms—especially as a result of the pandemic, which has made international travel less attractive. My expectation is that this will become mainstream, especially if a more portable version comes to market.”
Nonetheless, Grant emphasizes that Imperial’s main focus is finding ways to use the technology to facilitate human interaction and enhance teaching. “Our experience in the Edtech Lab has always been that success in online learning means putting teaching first and technology second,” she says. “The role of technology should be to enable rather than determine outcomes.”
At McCombs, the focus is also on the people rather than the tech. “As the pandemic subsides significantly here, we’re concentrating on the in-person experience in the fall term,” Stephens says. “But we are happy to know we can pivot quickly and leverage technology for new, innovative ways of course delivery when it makes sense to do so.”